The people of South Africa honoured the Father of their reclaimed nation on a world stage yesterday. In doing so, they honoured themselves, their suffering, their struggle of resistance against apartheid and their determination to realise Mandela’s dream. Many, I am sure, would have preferred to sing and dance and celebrate the colossus they and the world have lost, rather than listening to speeches, except perhaps that of Barack Obama.
His was the only speech (see below) that received an attentive hearing and that explored the meaning for the world and its leaders of what Mandela stood for and lived by, the only speech to challenge the assembled world leaders to live Mandela’s values and show evidence of following his example.
Jacob Zuma not only failed to inspire, he was booed repeatedly by his own people in front of the people of the world and their leaders. Those waiting to hear what he would do with Madiba’s vision for South Africa and for a better world and how that helped to shape his own vision and direction of travel waited in vain.
But, Obama was also challenging himself, big time. Robben Island was Mandela’s Guantanamo, Sharpeville and Soweto the villages devastated by Obama’s drones with faceless and nameless, defenceless victims of raw military might, children and elderly alike. And there were also present Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, George Bush… Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan.
In spite of all that Obama said which resounded with the crowd, neither he nor anyone else made the blindingly obvious point, even with hindsight, that Mandela was kept in jail for 27 long years, that the conditions that triggered the armed struggle he and the ANC saw as necessary worsened throughout his imprisonment, only because the international community represented in that stadium accommodated and made deals with the apartheid regime in their own self interest. Clearly, some states are more sovereign than others, their barbarism and genocide more tolerable than that of others.
Obama said that Mandela’s life challenged us to ask the question: “how well have I applied his lessons in my own life?”
It would be gratifying to think that after all this adulation, valorizing and moralising, the 100 leaders of nations who gathered in South Africa would indeed apply Mandela’s lessons and lead with moral purpose the building of the society of his dreams, i.e., ‘a society which recognises that all people are born equal, with each entitled in equal measure to life, liberty, prosperity, human rights and good governance’. Sadly, however, I think we can safely expect the majority of them to return forthwith to business as usual.
Picture (home): ‘life of the mind‘ by Loving Earth (Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)